Interview: Kevin Rudolf
Wed, 26 Nov 2008 12:26:19
Anyone old enough to remember buying a rock-rap record is old enough to be embarrassed by it. One-riff guitarists joined forces with one-record DJs and elbowed their way through music's locker room snapping towels on their way to juice up before hitting the weight room. It was brutish, juvenile and insecure in the most overcompensating sort of way.
Now we've got Lil Wayne keeping company with Kid Rock and Kanye trying to oust Robert Smith as leader of the new wave school. There's a danger that things could take a turn back towards adolescence, but it seems that this time the partnership is forming around shared curiosity rather than convenient ignorance. It's this genuine wonder that shields musicians like Kevin Rudolf, an axe-wielding producer who's contributed to hits for heavy weights like Timbaland, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake.
After years of stoking the fire for other musicians, Rudolf has just been handed his own book of matches through a debut album, In The City, and a deal with Cash Money Records. Sending out Wayne to help guide him through his first single with the collaborative smash "Let It Rock," the southern rap bastion obviously has big plans for Rudolf's future. We recently had a chance to talk with the fast rising star and got his thoughts on perseverance, anonymity in the age of celebrity and getting respect on your own terms.
When "Let It Rock" first hit, it came as little bit of a surprise to me. I, like a lot of people, wasn't familiar with you. I didn't know you'd been in the game so long, but it didn't take any time for this single to just blow up and I'm hearing people talk about it all over the place. Were you surprised at all by the rapid success that you've had?
I wasn't surprised by the success because I believed in it; cash money believed in it, universal believed in it. We were excited about it. Everyone in the inner circle knew what we had, but at the same time I didn't think it would happen quite this fast. I thought we'd be where we are now in about three more months.
What do you think it was that really connected with people and made them jump on board so quickly?
I think it's a combination of things. Its' just something different; it doesn't sound like anything else on the radio, but it works on the radio. Its real hooky, and I think I've got some things to say on it. It's original, it's different, it's fresh sounding, and also I think Lil Wayne's an attention getter, so putting him on it definitely got people's attention.
Wayne is hard to ignore right now. You can't turn around without bumping into him.
I'm proud to be working with him and putting him in a different context where people haven't seen him.
That makes me think. I'm listening to the cut and it's got the rock elements, it's got the pop elements, it's got Weezy on there doing the rap. What's genre would you put yourself in if you're back was against the wall and you had to?
I always refuse to describe my sound, my music. I think it's in my own sound; it's something different. I can tell you that I try to take the authentic aspects of rock n roll and the authentic aspects of hip hop—great melodies, great songs—and combine them. What you hear is what you're getting.
“it's not rap over rock or peanut butter and jelly. This is a fusion”
What sounds/groups/artists went into you making that sound growing up?
Me growing up, I went through phases. I was a hardcore guitar player for a while. During that time, I loved Jimmy Page , Led Zeppelin, Van Halen. Then I got into producing and learning and listening to Timbaland and The Neptunes and Dr. Dre. As a songwriter it was just loving great songwriters like Phil Collins and Sting. I went through a lot of phases, so by the time I was writing this album they were all coming together.
You can tell just from the sound that it wasn't something forced together. You can tell if something is thrown together.
Yeah, it's not rap over rock or peanut butter and jelly. This is a fusion; this is trying to force something new and break some new ground.
So talk to me about how you started playing guitar.
I tried a few instruments. I tried piano for a little bit. I tried acoustic guitar, and then I just walked into a store and saw an electric guitar and I thought, "Man, I gotta get my hands on that. I don't know what I'm going to do with it, but I've got to have one of those." I was lucky it came pretty easily, and it was on from there.
Were you in bands growing up?
I was in some local bands. I played different clubs in New York. I got real interested in production. I wanted to be able to control my own sound.
You brought up the production stuff a couple times now. What's the creative process like?
It depends on what I'm doing. If I'm playing guitar on a record, they've usually got it down half way, and I just hop on it and do whatever I feel. I just sort of vibe until it feels right and everyone is feeling it, and then we put it down. When it comes to production, I do the beat at home and then I bring it in and they do their part to it. It depends on what I'm doing.
How'd you get linked up with all these urban dudes to begin with?
The Timbaland thing, I met him through a friend. Someone who's engineering/mixing with a record. I came in and brought my guitar, and they plugged me in and had me playing on a record. I was always writing and producing on the side. I came to my own on this record.
When you were in the studio with these dudes, did you have anyone in particular you learned a lot from?
When I first met Timbaland, I felt like I just loved watching and learning, and then I'd just go home and do my own beats. You just sort of have to be around and feel the energy and be a part of some of those hit records. When you make your own, you know when it's working.
Are there any hit records that you had a hand in that you're really proud of?
I don’t' know about proud of, but what I remember was that first record with Timbaland and Lil Kim and that came on the radio like a week after I wrote it. I just thought that was crazy. You can work on something and a week later everyone in the world knows it. That was inspiring to me.
How long have you had your mind really set on making your own record? How long have you been putting these songs together?
Since I've started playing guitar, I've always been writing and always had a 4-track/8-track thing on the side. I've always been writing and developing. And it's just like everybody else, the world doesn't know what you're doing, and then they hear one song and it looks like it came from nowhere, but pretty much everyone I know that is successful has been doing it a long time.
There are no overnight successes. You're in a family of grinders: Cash money. What's it like being on that label and watching these cats making the cheddar?
They were great. They just approached it from a really supportive angle, "I like this song and how about that song." They've supported me; they've given me the platform to do exactly what I want how I want to do it. No one's questioned anything. The result of that is a record that's real.
Something I thought was interesting was that when you first came up on the radar I couldn't find a picture of you. I didn't know what you looked like. I thought it was interesting because you look at Wayne and the Cash Money crew, and all those dudes are about promoting themselves and being out and having their picture taking. What made you kind of ease into it and not blast yourself all over the place?
I think it's a combination of things. You've got to understand how fast this record was. We weren't just sitting there doing photos and videos and bios and all that stuff and then three months later the song comes out. The thing was already on the radio before I even really messed with MySpace and all. I'm not really one of those people at all. I'm pretty private. I maintain who I am. I do my thing. I'm proud of the music. I've always made that the star of the show. At the end of the day that's what you're buying. You're buying music. You're feeling music. That's the way it used to be back in the day. And the other side of it is that people are curious. We held back more because it was fun watching people be curious about you. Everyone in this day and age, you've got so much information on them. It's like you're bored of them before you start. I didn't want that to happen with me. I wanted to ease people in and get people excited and intrigued about the album. And have it be something where they think they can feel and connect. I don't want to inundate people with who I am. I want it to be a relationship.
It looks like the hip hop game has broken wide open in the last couple years as far as what people are willing to accept as a sound thanks to people like Kanye and Weezy. What do you think was out there that made people ready for this?
I think it's a shifted culture a lot. I think the original black and white is being broken down. I think culture barriers are breaking down. I think people who only loved hip hop are now loving rock and people who only loved rock are now liking hip hop. I remember as a kid always loving hip hop beats—always loving drums, always loving that sound. I think people are really open minded about what can be considered popular music. What can be pop.
It's revitalized a lot of sounds. Injecting that cross-genre blood.
And we're doing it naturally. I don't try to be rap-rock. I just try to take what's authentic about rock and what's authentic about hip hop and combine them and make it feel right.
This thing has come together real quickly. What is the plan for you now? When can we find that album? What's a little bit of the battle plan?
The album is called In the City. It's coming out November 25th. It's a real serious album. It's a concept album. I put a lot of thought and energy into it. I think every song is real solid and you're gonna hear a lot of features. We've got Lil Wayne; we've got Nas, which I'm really proud of. We've got Rick Ross, we've got Birdman. These are all features—real collaborations—not let's get a bunch of people on for no reason. I think it's a real fresh sounding album, I think people are going to be real curious about it and they're gonna love it when they get it. My game plan is just to make people aware of the album. We're gonna do some touring and some radio shows just to get out there in the world and show people what's going on.
Can you let us in a little bit on what that concept is?
It's a loose concept. Just about me growing up in New York and around the city. My experiences, people I've met, characters I've been around. My story is just about self realization: going through my own ups and downs. I wrote a song called "Great Escape." It's just a journey. You've got to listen to it all the way through.
This is a whole new ball game having your stuff everywhere. Is there any hesitation at all on your part or are you ready for it?
I'm ready for it, but I'm gonna tell you upfront that I'm going to do it my way and continue to do it my way. I'm not gonna bend or do what someone else wants me to do. I think true success is when you do it your way, and you connect with people and they feel you. That's how you win in this game. I don't have any in trepidation at all. As long as I'm doing my music and being who I am in the world, I couldn't ask for anything else.